St Blazey’s millinery millionaire

In mid-Cornwall just east of St Austell, two out of every three families in the parish of St Blazey in 1851 were dependent on the mining industry for their daily bread. Unfortunately, the local mines, mainly exploiting copper reserves, were not best placed to weather the crisis that hit Cornwall’s copper mines in 1866. By 1881, local mines were employing just one in seven of St Blazey’s male workforce. In consequence, as I’m sure you can predict by now, St Blazey was a major source of people for the New World.

William Hancock, a copper miner, and his wife Jane had decided that enough was enough by 1869 and left the mines of St Blazey behind to travel steerage across the Atlantic with some of their children. They were following two of their sons who had made the trip earlier, in fact in time to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. One of those accompanying their parents was 18 year old Amelia Hancock, destined to become one of Cornwall’s more successful exports.

Amelia Hancock

Amelia was a milliner at Mount Carmel in Pennsylvania in 1870. Moving to nearby Sunbury in 1872 she opened her own millinery store selling ‘bonnets, hats, ribbons and embroidery in great variety’ while also acting as an agent for Weed sewing machines. Amelia had picked the right time to set up her business. Trade was recovering, the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania were booming and population rapidly growing after the traumas of the Civil War. She later boasted that she had made $50,000 out of her millinery business (around £1.2 million these days). This provided her with the means to buy other property and by the 1890s she ‘owned considerable business property in the heart of Sunbury’ and had become ‘one of the most successful business women of the town’.

The properties she bought included a derelict mansion at Fort Augusta, a fort built in the 1750s during war with the French and their native American allies. The house had been the ‘abode of tramps for years’ and had been given the name of ‘spook house’. Undeterred, Amelia restored it ‘at considerable expense’ and turned it into ’one of the most handsome residences in Sunbury’.

By 1900 Amelia was a ‘lady of leisure’ living with her American-born husband Isaac Gross at Fort Augusta. There, she installed a museum and opened the grounds to thousands of visitors. After her husband died in 1918 she stayed there until 1925, the State Historical Commission buying the old fortifications in 1920. In 1925 she finally sold up and moved west with her daughter to Albuquerque in New Mexico, where she died in 1929, a long way from St Blazey.

The early museum that Amelia created in her house